June 19, 2024

This was supposed to be another shortish post about some things I’ve enjoyed recently, but turned into a sort of mini-essay on NFTs— a subject I probably don’t understand well enough to write about it. Oh well.

In his book Uproot, Jace Clayton (aka DJ/Rupture) writes in one chapter about Red Bull’s sponsorship of musical performers and festivals— including pretty obscure, underground, or experimental music. He points out that such choices might seem surprising for a big corporation whose core business has nothing to do with music, unless we see such support in the context of such a corporation’s marketing budget, where it looks less like a risk than a bargain (since unknown, underground musicians are far cheaper than big-name celebrities). At relatively little expense, brands can associates themselves with these artists and borrow some of their street cred— provided that the deal itself doesn’t undermine the artists’ image. Brands involved in such deals thus take pains to keep from “tainting” the artists, giving them free rein creatively and portraying themselves as, in a sense, patrons of the arts, or even just fans. As a part of that, they make it clear that the music itself is not what they’re paying for. On one level, that’s a good thing, but Clayton argues that it’s also an indicator of significant change in the location of value.

“It’s telling that these companies go out of their way to assure us that they don’t own any of the music produced. They appear generous as they let us know that our music is literally worthless to them. It’s embeddedness in our little cultures that they want. Our musical activities provide a context in which the brands can be seen…Our music’s lack of value becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: one of the reasons that artists are expected to seek brand ‘partnerships’ is because it’s so difficult for musicians to earn a living selling music or touring nowadays. The corporate largesse is both a symptom and proof of this worthlessness.” (pp. 122-123).

I thought about this passage as I read some of the pile of coverage of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and art sales over the past few weeks. The event that sparked all of that was the sale of an NFT for the work of the artist known as Beeple by Christie’s— a first for a major auction house. (UPDATE: The sale of this work earned him over $69 million). (Beeple was interviewed in The Art Newspaper about the sale).

Essentially, an NFT is a way of distinguishing an “authorized” or official copy of a digital artwork from any others. Marc Hogan, in “Why Do NFTs Matter for Music?”, explains it like this:

To over-simplify, an NFT is sort of like a digital certificate of authenticity. Digital artwork, by its very nature, can be copied and distributed instantly all around the world. But buying an NFT gives the customer proof of ownership for whatever they’re collecting, regardless of how many digital copies exist. Born out of the visual art world, NFTs create a sense of scarcity that’s inherently artificial—the token is rare, not the artwork itself.

Gian Volpicelli, writing in WIRED, explains the “non-fungible” part this way:

Where a bitcoin is comparable to a dollar bill, an NFT can be likened to a cat, a sculpture, or a painting: You can’t sell part of it without spoiling the whole, and its value is rather subjective. Those characteristics render NFTs a good metaphor for art.

Sales platforms use a blockchain ledger (usually Ethereum) to keep track of the sale of these tokens; the result, in essence, is that one copy of a digital artwork becomes unique— and therefore valuable. If you are the owner of the NFT, you can sell it to someone else, and that transaction is automatically and securely recorded in the blockchain ledger; you could still have a copy of the image (or whatever) on your hard drive and look at it whenever you want, but the unique token is no longer yours, and your copy of the artwork is not valuable (and, in fact, you still can’t sell that without violating the artist’s copyright).

Volpicelli writes that

The idea of paying for the symbolic ownership of a digital image that lives somewhere on the web and can be captured on a screenshot or right-click-download within seconds, is so alien it seems either idiotic or ironic. Yet NFT proponents purport to be solving exactly that problem: the near-impossibility of monetizing digital artworks.

Obviously, that’s potentially a game-changer for artists of all kinds whose work exists entirely or primarily in digital form. How, exactly, they are to make a living, as well as prevent others from profiting from their labors, has been a problem for as long, at least, as file sharing services have existed. One other major change from traditional art sales (sales of traditional art? traditional sales of art?) is that NFTs can include self-executing “smart contracts,” which are triggered automatically whenever a token changes hands. These can include, for instance, a 10% cut for the artist, so that even if speculators are buying their work to resell it for a higher price (which can happen within seconds in these forums), the artists benefit from the resulting price increases. (Apparently artists do get a share of sales on the secondary market in Europe, at least some of the time, but they don’t in the U.S.).writing in WIRED about Tweets as NFTs (yes, really), notes that

Purchasing an NFT can be an alternative way to support creators, a blockchain-fueled twist on Patreon or Tipeee. This is an enticing development for anyone who makes content for the social web, as it presents an opportunity to get paid for what might otherwise be given away for free.

Advocates of NFTs for visual art, in particular, portray what is happening as an opening of the art world, and the art market, to people who would previously have been excluded, either because their work is digital or because the work itself is unlikely to be embraced (both of which probably apply to Beeple).

But there’s potential here for what seems like an even more dramatic shift. As one writer, quoted by Knibbs, who funded the writing of a new essay by minting it as an NFT first, says, using NFTs “offers a way to monetize work that remains a public good, without a paywall.” This is an interesting idea; it suggests that what seems ludicrous about NFTs is also their best feature. In general, on the internet, people making creative work of any kind have faced a choice between giving the work itself away and hoping that indirect sources of compensation will arise, or getting money for their work by restricting access to it, thus reducing their audience (and fighting a perpetual rear-guard action against all the ways that it will get reproduced and distributed anyway). If making NFTs for digital artworks can square that particular circle, it seems like it would be a win for everyone.

Hogan, focusing on music, suggests something similar when he connects NFTs to the sale of premium or limited edition versions of new music on physical media, usually vinyl, which create a kind of scarcity without actually making the music itself any less freely accessible. You can generally still stream it on Spotify, or buy a digital copy from iTunes, if you just want to hear the songs; you just don’t have the special, physical item. These can then become collectors items, whose value is to a very large extent detached from the value of the music. But they give artists another way to make some money from their work, without forcing them to spend all of their time and energy trying to police access or arguing fruitlessly with Spotify about paltry streaming royalties. 

On the other hand, it also seems like there’s a limit to the viability of this strategy (as the saying goes: will it scale?). This is different from the widespread fear that NFTs are a bubble, in the usual financial market sense, that is doomed to pop. The buying frenzy around NFTs at the moment is driven in part by the fact that they are (relatively) new and there are (relatively) few of them. If every artist or writer or whatever in every medium is trying to sell NFTs for their work, that won’t be true anymore. How much will a relatively unknown artist or writer be able to make, once that happens? How much will anyone pay for the NFT for one particular tweet, if there are millions to choose from? In other words, the value of NFTs may in fact depend not only on the exclusivity of the individual token, but the supply of tokens, in general, as a category. And they don’t resolve the free-rider problem: why buy an NFT for, say, a magazine article if you can still read it for free? If the only answer to that question is “because you want to support the writer or the publication,” then we’re really right back where we have been with platforms like Patreon— which have been great in some ways, less so in others.

This discussion also made me think about the issue of “metered access” to ebooks for libraries. What this means is that when a library purchases an ebook, it can circulate a set number of times, or for a set length of time, and then it “expires” or disappears, and the library must purchase it again. The idea behind this, from the publisher’s point of view, is that while physical books wear and have to be repurchased periodically, ebooks can in principle last forever, and that deprives them (and authors, it should be said) of an important source of revenue. One controversy here has been the number of times, or length of time publishers will allow a book to circulate, which often seem far lower than the likely lifespan of a print book, but I think part of it is also that this policy is an attempt, in a sense, to deny or suppress what is distinctive or definitive about ebooks, and digital media in general. (Is “digitality” a word? If so, I’d say they are suppressing the books’ digitality). Ebooks are data, and they can be copied an infinite number of times, with no loss of quality, at essentially no cost; metered access acts as though this is not true. NFTs are, in a sense, doing the same thing: trying to ignore or disregard the inherent reproducibility of a digital image or sound file. But NFTs are also doing this in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone from access, while the whole point of “metering” ebooks is to do exactly that.

So, lots of unanswered questions, and a lot of heat generated by the amount of money changing hands. But if nothing else, NFTs are something genuinely new in the world, an idea made possible by the particular conditions of living and working right now.

On a possibly, distantly, related note,“The Endless Life Cycle of Japanese City Pop”, by Cat Zhang, looks at how schmaltzy Japanese pop songs from the 1980s have become extremely popular on both YouTube and Spotify; at the end of 2020, a song from 1979 went to number 1 on Spotify’s viral songs chart. This article explores the weird intersections of recommendation algorithms, Orientalism, and the desire for comforting, “chill” music that one can have on in the background. It also led me to this really interesting paper about Vaporwave, from which shares some aesthetic characteristics with City Pop and circulates in similar ways.

In “The Communist Designer, the Fascist Furniture Dealer, and the Politics of Design” Glenn Adamson begins with a contrast that highlights the wildly different valences of modernist design— two bookshelves, extremely similar, but created by people with nearly diametrically opposed political views and thus clearly divergent purposes. Adamson also considers whether the design of objects, in itself, has political value, or can be a mechanism for political change.

Yasmin Williams, “Through the Woods”

I play the guitar, but even so, when I watch Yasmin Williams, I feel like I have no understanding of how she is making the sounds she is making.

Benjamin Britten, Cello Suite #1, Performed by Brandon Cho

The venue (Guarneri Hall, in Chicago) hasn’t set this up to allow embedding, but it’s a beautifully filmed performance of a piece I didn’t know before, but really like: it’s tremendously varied, sounding very modern in some places but with bits of classical melodicism in others.

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